Maggie does not have time for a lizard funeral. She has to drop Jason off at a bus stop half a mile away because of street repaving. She’s agreed to open up at the library for Suparna for the whole month in trade for being able to leave early to take Jason to gymnastics while Kiersten’s deployed. Toast takes too long, so she’s eating jam on cold bread straight out of the refrigerator.
“Howard’s dead!” Jason cries, and while Maggie feels a pang in her heart for her son, his dead pet gecko is just one more morning hurdle that means Maggie isn’t going to have time to stop for coffee, or probably even put on mascara.
“It’s ok, sweetie, let me see,” Maggie says, gently guiding Jason away from Howard’s terrarium. Howard is unmistakably dead. He’s laying upside down, paws curled up like he’s a dried beetle on hot pavement.
Maggie immediately blames herself for forgetting something important in Howard’s care and feeding. His heat lamp is still on, but had she forgotten some supplement? It had been a terrible idea to get a new pet right before Kiersten left; animals were her wheelhouse. Maggie hugs her son, wipes his nose and encourages him to head downstairs and eat his cereal while she figures out what to do.
“We need to have a memorial service!” Jason moans from the stairwell. Kiersten’s aunt passed away a few months ago, and they’d fought over whether or not to take Jason with them to the funeral. Maggie hadn’t wanted to explain death to him yet, but Kiersten, in her matter-of-fact approach to feelings, had insisted it was crueler to pretend.
Maggie had honestly been more concerned about the physical details and the process of burial, but Jason had gone on and on about the commemoration with a kindergartner’s super-powered over-focus.
“We can do a memorial service for him tonight,” Maggie assures him. She hopes distantly that he’ll forget, but Jason isn’t an easily distracted baby without object permanence anymore.
“And FaceTime with Mimi!” That Kiersten was able to do videos at all was a luxury this deployment, but Maggie has business to discuss about the car and the deadline for Jason’s next session of gymnastics, and she wants to tell her wife about her week. She does not want to televise a pet memorial.
“Ok,” Maggie says. “Ok, tonight. Go eat your breakfast because we have to get you to school.”
She feels cruel not offering to let him stay home through his grief, but she can’t skip work. Maggie makes a note to check the pet store’s adoption booklet to see if there’s a refund for a death within a certain amount of time. Did small animals come with a money-back guarantee?
She covers Howard in the tank with a purple striped hand towel from the bathroom, offers a silent apology for his death and the indignity, and shuts the light to Jason’s room. If she hurries, she can manage some dry shampoo.
Howard’s memorial service that evening is thankfully brief, and Maggie’s had a glass of wine, so it’s easier to say what a good, kind gecko he was, even if they’d only had him for a few weeks. They can’t get ahold of Kiersten, who is likely on a training exercise, but the attempt seems enough to soothe Jason.
Howard goes into a shoe box, the sacrificed towel a warm blanket, and Jason spends a long time collecting stones from the tank that he thinks Howard would like to put in alongside him.
Maggie manages to convince Jason he can’t stay up for them to bury Howard in the backyard since it’s already an hour past his bedtime. She sorely wishes Kiersten were home, because this sort of thing is easier with two parents. And Kiersten could actually dig a hole pretty fast.
Standing in the dark with a flashlight propped on the picnic table to dig a grave for a pet lizard at 11:00 P.M. after eating her kid’s leftover, cold grilled cheese for dinner… is definitely not one of the highlights of parenthood. The night is weirdly still; Maggie can’t remember the last time she was outside this late. Back when she and Kiersten still lived in Boston, maybe, coming back from dinner with friends, or maybe it was a concert. She feels a pang for the sound of the traffic, the bus line that ran along their old street.
She bids Howard goodbye, feeling awkward about not saying more, even though she had yet to form a real attachment to him. He was a good gecko, as far as she knows about geckos, and she’s sorry he died in her care. After covering his tiny grave, she remembers the bag of live crickets she’d just bought. She wishes them well on their second chance at life as she releases them into the dark yard, the grass already wet with dew.
The next morning is when things really get weird.
“Mommy, where’s Robot Rancher?”
Maggie’s pretty sure this isn’t the first time Jason’s shouted the question at her, but paused in front of the kitchen counter, carton in her hand, ready to pour milk in her coffee, she can’t answer.
There’s a ghost gecko sitting next to her coffee cup. Not a random gecko. It has to be Howard. Howard’s ghost, head up, like it always when he was waiting for a treat. She is certain he’s somehow come back to life, until the sunlight hits him and he’s slightly translucent.
“Just a second, hon,” Maggie calls, her voice unsteady.
Robot Rancher is in his usual place, wedged under the ottoman that Jason pretends is Robot Rancher’s Robot Tractor. Maggie finishes her coffee in the living room, watching Jason spray cereal milk all over the iPad screen when he laughs at a fart joke. Much to her dismay, Howard’s ghost is still sitting on the counter when she goes back for a coffee refill.
Maggie reaches out, hand trembling, to touch him. Her fingers pass right through him and he disappears.
Maggie goes to work and tells herself she imagined the whole thing, that she hasn’t gotten enough sleep and she’s getting paranoid with Kiersten gone. Maybe she’s more disturbed by the death than she let herself believe.
When she comes home, Jason abandons his shoes and backpack and launches himself onto his sensory swing with a comic book Maggie brought home from the new releases shelf.
Howard’s ghost is sitting on the edge of the couch in the living room where he was never allowed. Kiersten had been worried about the gecko’s pads getting pet hair or debris. Maggie was more concerned about the gecko getting lost forever in the living room furniture.
“Hi,” Maggie says tentatively. Howard blinks at her.
Do you feed a ghost pet?
Maggie had moved Howard’s tank out of Jason’s room and into the basement, hoping that he wouldn’t be unnecessarily reminded of the loss. She goes down and gets a scoopful of dried meal worms and scatters them on the couch.
“Ewwww,” Jason says as he finds the worms after dinner. “Mommy!”
Maggie cleans up the worms with the Dustbuster under the watchful eye of Howard’s ghost while Jason crushes graham crackers unseeing under his sock feet.
The adoption booklet unsurprisingly does not have a section covering when your pet dies and becomes a ghost. All it covers is how to get a replacement gecko; though, in all honesty, if Jason had been a little younger, she probably would have done just that and convinced him the new gecko was Howard after a very successful check-up with the lizard doctor.
Howard’s ghost is eyeing her from the atop the refrigerator. She tries ignoring him, but it is easier said than done. She feels his unblinking eyes following her, telegraphing the dreaded moment when he would leap for her and start climbing with his tiny suction feet.
Maggie doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she also doesn’t believe she’s tired enough to hallucinate. At work, she googles ‘ghost pets’ and ‘ghost-like phenomenon’ and ‘lizards after death’ and counts it in her reference desk daily question statistics.
Maggie belongs to a Facebook Mom’s group of alums from college that probably wouldn’t throw her out if she posted asking if anyone had ever had a pet come back as a ghost. But it was the sort of place you asked for collective advice on investing or favorite convertible car seats, so she’s probably better off keeping it to herself.
Instead, half-hopeless, she turns to Google again. “Can a pet come back as ghost?” turns up plenty of “It happened to me!” stories and a Reddit thread about haunted objects which only adds to her paranoia. It’s the wrong question anyway. Maggie knows a pet can come back as a ghost. She’s being watched by Howard in her kitchen right now.
Finally, Maggie ends up at a YouTube channel of night-vision-filled videos of people exploring abandoned buildings in the county. It’s suspenseful and full of jump cuts and has zero useful information about her very real problem. She watches enough that when she tries to fall asleep, all she sees is Howard lurking behind a corner of her bedside table in dim green light.
Why is Howard haunting her? Why her and not Jason? Does Howard’s ghost know, like Jason, like all small creatures, that it’s better to seek out a grown-up, even from the spirit world? Even worse, is Howard expecting her to know what to do?
Maggie’s trying to find the day bed under the piles of unfolded laundry she dumped on it to fold later when she hears Jason wake up shouting for her. She’s almost folded all the towels – by far the easiest load – and she resigns herself to the fact that even those aren’t going to get done anytime soon.
Jason is sitting up in bed, dry sobs and hiccups wracking his chest under Spider-man pajamas.
“Did you have a nightmare?”
Jason shrugs. Maggie winces as he opens his mouth wide in what she’s expecting to be a scream. Instead it turns into a yawn. “I miss Howard,” Jason sniffles.
“I know you do, sweetie.” She wishes she could tell her son Howard is still around, if not exactly in the same way. “It’s so sad when we lose a pet we love. But just think of him on the other side of the rainbow bridge.”
Jason leans into her shoulder, eyes already closing again. “That’s the bridge to animal heaven, right?”
“It is. Howard crossed the bridge and now he’s meeting all sorts of other new friends.”
“And he’s happy?”
She looks around at Jason’s room, his nearly flattened beanbag chair, his stuffed dinosaurs sprawled out on the floor like a meteor had struck.
Promising that Howard is happy in a magical pet afterlife feels like a sharp lie while he is downstairs haunting their kitchen. She fears his spirit is still lingering because he’s vengeful, but could a vengeful gecko really do any harm?
“He’s happy,” Maggie says, and kisses the top of Jason’s head, willing it to be true.
By the middle of the week, Maggie has a headache she can’t shake. After an off-site training on a new feature of the cataloging system that was more mind-numbing than educational, she loops around back home. She’ll tell work that the training ran late or the school called and Jason had a fever. Whatever. She just needs a few hours to herself, dozing on the deck, maybe reading the mystery novel before it’s due back.
No, she’d stopped reading that one when a ghost appeared to the heroine.
A nap. She’ll definitely try a nap before she has to go pick up Jason. It’s another moment she sorely misses Kiersten. On a day like this, she could ask Kiersten to pick up dinner on her way back from the base. Kiersten could do bedtime. Kiersten could hug her firmly and reassure her that she saw the ghost of their son’s pet gecko, too.
There’s a strange car in the driveway, and Maggie’s heart soars with hope that Kiersten’s home early, and maybe someone gave her a ride, or the car didn’t start and she got a rental. Her hope tells her wild stories, all of them believable if it means her wife could be here now and Maggie wouldn’t have to handle anything else alone.
Instead of Kiersten, a woman with gray hair caught up in a frizzy bun is crouched in the driveway, uncoiling an orange extension cord dangling from Maggie’s kitchen window.
“Excuse me,” Maggie says. She almost forgets to shut off her car as she jumps out to demand this woman explain what she’s doing.
“Oh, hello dear,” the woman says. Now that Maggie is closer, she can see that the extension cord is plugged into something that looks like an air compressor with a couple of mason jars attached. “Would you believe I work for the gas company?”
“Well, the gas meter is on the other side of the house, and not in my kitchen, so no.”
“How about Animal Control?”
“I think you lost your chance to lie with the first question.”
The woman nods, agreeing that yes, she has been caught out in a lie and remains entirely unfazed.
Maggie vacillates between awkward and furious. She doesn’t need this. She has a headache and she has to solo parent for the next six months and she has a ghost pet in her house and this stranger doesn’t even have the good grace to pretend to be ashamed she’s been caught doing something bizarre.
The woman turns on the air compressor thing. It revs like a car engine failing to turn over, and then it whistles like Maggie’s pressure cooker when she’s too impatient and goes for the manual release.
“Alright then,” the woman says, content with her examination of her equipment. “My name’s Agatha, and I’m here for your ghost.”
Tears spring to Maggie’s eyes and she angrily wipes them away. Howard is real. This is the most absurd thing that has ever happened to her.
“You’re here for the ghost gecko?”
“Oh, is it a reptile. I see. We were wondering, it appeared to be quite small.”
“It was my son’s. They’re palm sized. His name is – was – Howard. Wait, who are you? Who’s we?”
“The simplest answer,” Agatha says, “is that we are cleaners.”
It is simple. Elegantly simple. Agatha has come here to clean her home of a ghost.
“How did you know I had a ghost? Were you tracking my internet browsing history?”
“I wouldn’t know how to do that, dear. No, we have these machines that can read energy signatures. In my day, we used gifted people, but I do have to say the machines are much more accurate and can give you an address. The hours I spent knocking on people’s doors pretending I was from the town census. I did get a lot of people registered to vote that way, though,” she says, looking thoughtfully up at the clouds.
“So you can – you can take him away? Howard? The ghost?”
Agatha nods, and then fiddles again with her ghost cleaning machine as it makes a few plaintive beeps.
“Do you know why he’s here?” She’s embarrassed at her voice shaking.
“This is where he lived, right?” Agatha asks. “This is where he died?”
“Yes, of course, but I mean, why is my son’s pet gecko a ghost?”
Agatha shrugs as if Maggie’s asked about the weather and not an existential question about life, death, and existence. “You’d have to ask him.”
“I did!” Maggie bursts out. She asked as she fried Jason an egg and Howard eyed her from on top of the coffeemaker. When his tail draped over the keyboard of her laptop like he was trying to get warm. When he stared at her from the mail sorter as she grabbed her keys to leave each morning. “I asked if he had unfinished business, and if he had been happy, or if he was sad he had died. I asked everything I could think of.” To her relief, Agatha’s expression isn’t one of judgment, but quiet consideration.
“Well,” Agatha says. “I imagine he might not know, either. Even as a ghost, he’s still only a lizard.”
All this time, Maggie’s been thinking Howard had some mission, some reason for being there – a haunting agenda. She’d carried the guilt of whatever had gone wrong, the grudge Howard held against them, or his fate. She hadn’t done enough for her son and she hadn’t done enough for his lizard and everything was on her shoulders. It’s possible that the whole time Howard has been as confused as Maggie is.
“This thing you’re doing, it’s going to remove him?” Maggie gestures at the air compressor.
“It will remove and contain the energy that is his ghost,” Agatha says. “We use EMF as well as light-and-heat sensitive equipment to identify a before and after reading.” Maggie can’t process most of what Agatha is saying. She’s letting this strange woman vacuum away a ghost reptile but she needs to know that it will all be ok.
“Will he be happy?” Her breath hitches and two hot tears spill down her cheeks and trail down her chin. She wipes at them with her sleeve. She thinks of what she promised Jason; Howard the gecko on a hot rock in the sun in heaven, eyes bright.
“If you’re asking if he will achieve eternal rest, I don’t know,” Agatha says. “I can tell you this. I’ve worked with ghosts for most of my life, and they’re not the same as the living individual, people or pet. They’re a sort of after-image. So while your son’s pet gecko may appear to still be here, his soul, or whatever made him who he was, will forever be intangible and unfathomable.”
Maggie’s ashamed tears are still falling. She takes a deep, shaky breath.
“Grief is good, my dear,” Agatha says, gently patting Maggie’s arm. “Sure sign you’re still alive. You can go along inside, pour yourself a glass of water. I’ll be done here in just a moment.”
“Am I supposed to pay you something?”
Agatha’s laugh is like a cat jumping on piano. “No,” is all she says.
“Thanks,” Maggie says. “For taking care of him.” It’s still there, in her words, that she hopes this woman and her cleaning and her energy reading equipment will send Howard on to wherever he’s supposed to be.
All thoughts of a nap are gone, even though Maggie feels exhausted. She tidies the mail on the counter, checks the school lunch menu for next week. She’s afraid to see Howard’s ghost disappear, sucked away, but she doesn’t see him at all. Maybe he’s already gone.
The whistling of Agatha’s device winds up and down several times before finally going quiet, and Agatha looks up to wave farewell to Maggie through the fingerprint-smeared window, but she’s not saying goodbye, she’s asking Maggie to unplug the extension cord. Maggie hasn’t even asked how she got inside in the first place. She wiggles the orange cord loose from the outlet and Agatha winds it up. Maggie would like to say she doesn’t search the house for signs of Howard once Agatha’s car disappears down the street, but she does. She doesn’t find anything paranormal anywhere.
Kiersten calls at 3:00 A.M., and by some miracle, Maggie hears the phone and answers.
“Hi babe, I can’t believe you’re awake. I know it’s sometime ridiculous time-”
“3:14,” Maggie says to crow as loud as possible to Kiersten, who laughs.
“I’m glad you answered.”
They catch up on household matters, Jason’s struggles in science, and the schedule for Kirsten’s return before coming around to the matter weighing most heavily on Maggie’s mind.
“So, should we get him another gecko?” Kiersten asks. “You can put him off till I’m home, and I can go with him.”
“Grandma Pam actually mentioned she has your Dad’s old bird cage.”
“So you’re firmly anti-reptile?”
“No, if that’s what he really wants, fine,” Maggie says, though she doesn’t really mean it. She’d still try to talk him out of it. “It was a bit traumatizing, to have it die so soon. You didn’t have to prepare its coffin.” You didn’t see its ghost for a whole week before some oddball, kind old lady sucked it away with a supernatural vacuum, she thinks.
“Pets die,” Kiersten says matter-of-factly. It’s so Kiersten that Maggie smiles into the cradle of the phone. “That’s just part of being a pet owner. We’re always going to outlive them.”
She thinks of Kiersten stationed on the other side of the world. The one time she got a call from her superior officer that Kiersten had received a concussion from friendly fire. The terror that shot through her. If Kiersten died, would her ghost haunt the house, or would be it be bound to some mobile med-tent in Afghanistan? Would someone like Agatha – a cleaner – have to come along to put her to rest?
“Hey, you ok?” Kiersten says.
“Yeah, yeah, just sleepy,” Maggie lies.
“Ok, well then go back to sleep. We’ll talk about pets when I get home. I’ll tell Jason when I email him that I want him to wait so I can choose something new with him.”
“Thanks,” Maggie says. “Be safe.”
“Love you,” Kirsten says.
“Love you,” Maggie echoes, though the call’s already disconnected in far-away static. “You, too, Howard,” she says. She doesn’t, really; if anything, she only got fond of him when he was a ghost. But if he had an eternal soul, it was a lizard’s eternal soul, and maybe a little bit of belated not-quite-love could go a long way to whatever rock he rested on, lux aeterna.